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Authentic glitz? Houston's real Mexican restaurant vows to wow diners in its new Kirby location

Pico's Mex Mex tasting February 2014
Crab cakes in red pepper sauce are one of the dish that were formerly specials but will now be on the permanent menu. Photo by Eric Sandler
Pico's Mex Mex tasting February 2014
A Mexican spin on Cajun classic Maque Choux with a flavor boost from house made chorizo. Photo by Eric Sandler
Pico's Mex Mex tasting February 2014
Arroz con Mole y Huevo Frito is rice and beans in mole topped with a fried egg. Photo by Eric Sandler
Pico's Mex Mex tasting February 2014
Pato en dos Moles: braised duck served two ways. The breast is cooked in mole pipian (pumpkin seed mole), and the leg is in mole de ciruela (prune mole). Photo by Eric Sandler
Pico's Mex Mex tasting February 2014
Camarones al Ajillo is shrimp sautéed in garlic and olive oil with pasilla peppers and garlic chips. PIco's Mex Mex/Facebook
Pico's Mex Mex tasting February 2014
A Pico's classic: chicken covered in mole poblano and topped with sesame seeds.  Photo by Eric Sandler
Pico's Mex Mex tasting February 2014
Pico's Mex Mex tasting February 2014
Pico's Mex Mex tasting February 2014
Pico's Mex Mex tasting February 2014
Pico's Mex Mex tasting February 2014
Pico's Mex Mex tasting February 2014

After 30 years in its original location on Bellaire, celebrated restaurant Pico's Mex-Mex is close to opening its new location at Kirby and Richmond in the space previously occupied by Ninfa's and (briefly) Maggie Rita's next month. Owner Arnaldo Richards and his daughter Monica have spent almost a year preparing the space for customers, eager to demonstrate that Pico's can have more success in the neighborhood than it did during a five year run in the space now occupied by breastaurant Twin Peaks.

While some people may wonder why Pico's is moving, Arnaldo explains that it was a simple decision. "We’ve been here for 30 years, and the neighborhood has changed. The dynamics of the restaurant has changed. The economy has changed, so therefore, the age group that I catered to for so many years has changed.

 "I think (diners are) going to be wowed." 

"There are some people who feel uncomfortable coming to this area, which I think is silly, because there is nothing wrong with this area. We’ve never had any incidents or crime or anything like that . . . This restaurant mostly has become a destination restaurant.

"No one in this immediate area within a square mile comes from here. Everyone is from Memorial, Tanglewood, Bellaire."

Essentially, if Pico's customers are already driving a distance to dine at Pico's, Richards thinks they'll follow him to the new location, which is also substantially larger than the current one. Monica states the parking lot will support a total capacity of almost 300 people combined between the dining room and newly built patio. 

Arnaldo declined to discuss the specifics of his lease agreement but said reported details of $60 per square foot cost aren't accurate. 

Extensive changes to the space begin with the front door, which has been relocated to face Kirby Drive and sports a new fountain. Inside, it appears that the Richards family spared no expense to bring the signature design elements of restaurants in Mexico to Houston. 

"I think (diners are) going to be wowed," Arnaldo tells CultureMap. "We have tried not to publish any pictures so they’re surprised when they come in." Some of the design elements include wrought iron chandeliers with onyx surfaces, fused glass artwork and furniture imported from Guadalajara. Guests will be able to hang jackets and purses on coast racks located next to their tables. 

"I think it’s upscale, but it's not stuffy . . . We wanted to have a homey feeling. I think we’ve been able to achieve it," Arnaldo adds. Monica agrees, saying the space "already feels like home."

Drinks Lockers & More 

One of the signature design elements is the new private dining room that's stocked with tequila lockers. Dubbed the Tequila Intellectuals Program, patrons will pay $1,800, $3,600 or $5,000 per year to rent a locker and then use that money to purchase rare bottles that Monica has worked with distributors to secure. Pico's is already taking deposits, including one from a tequila company and another from a wine distributor. 

"It's everything we love about tequila and want to share," Monica says of the program. 

Still, the focus remains squarely on the food. The Kirby location's much larger kitchen and all new equipment will allow Pico's to serve a variety of dishes that have appeared as specials but never found a home on the permanent menu. At a recent dinner, the kitchen turned out dishes that diners might not expect from a Mexican restaurant including Chilean sea bass, crab cakes and duck. 

"We stick to the principles: Cook the food the way I learned to in Mexico, the way it’s supposed to be," Arnaldo says. "A lot of restaurants Anglicize the food to the taste of the American public. I don’t think it should be that way. We serve what we serve. I’m not going to go and take ingredients out of a mole negro that has 29 ingredients.

 "We stick to the principles: Cook the food the way I learned to in Mexico, the way it’s supposed to be." 

"Why take out ingredients just to match the palate of the general public? We’ve had success with most of our dishes. We haven’t had to adapt to anything.

"These are recipes we carry from a restaurant my mother had in Mexico and the way we ate the food when I was growing up. That I’m never going to change."

Arnaldo believes having grown up in Mexico gives him an advantage over other chefs. "My competition, and I’m not going to name names, they’re very successful," he says. "They’ve taken trips to Mexico, and they’ve learned how to make Mexican food. There’s no way they’re going to be able to learn what I learned for the many years I spent in Mexico at family dinners and traditions that we have in our family. That doesn’t come by taking a trip to Mexico for six weeks . . . It just takes a little bit more.

"It’s not only in the taste. It’s in the culture and the idiosyncrasies we have in Mexico."

While the restaurant will be relocating, the Richards family will keep the old location on Bellaire for catering, banquets and to expand the company's fajitas delivery service. "In December, we did almost $125,000 of catering in 30 days. The logistics of that are incredible . . . It does affect your dining room. It does effect the efficiency . . . It's not the kind of business I want to run," Arnaldo says.

Both father and daughter are excited about having the opportunity to show off the new restaurant to their customers. 

"Now I believe that our food matches the location," Arnaldo says.

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